Inmate who died in jail had sued 3 SLO police officers

Nine days before an inmate died during a brief lock-up at the San Luis Obispo County Jail last week, a federal judge dismissed his $1.5 million lawsuit against three San Luis Obispo Police Department officers.

The federal judge had given Josey Richard Meche until mid-April to refile the suit.

Meche, 28, whom police called a transient, died March 12 at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center after being found unresponsive in a holding cell a little more than two hours after he was booked for resisting arrest in San Luis Obispo.

As of Wednesday, officials have not released the results of an autopsy performed last week.

Sheriff’s Office spokesman Tony Cipolla said a cause of death will not be announced until toxicology results are released, which could take up to eight weeks.

The lawsuit stemmed from an arrest a year earlier, nearly to the day.

On March 11, 2013, three San Luis Obispo officers arrested Meche on suspicion of throwing an object at a vehicle, vandalism, battery on an officer and resisting arrest, court records show. Meche claimed in his lawsuit that he was not resisting when officers held him, handcuffed, on the ground while an officer kneeled on his back and applied pressure over his lungs “in an attempt to asphyxiate” him.

He said in the suit that officers pressed his face to the asphalt and dragged him approximately 18 inches, causing road rash to his face, a laceration to his wrist, upper body pain, post-traumatic stress and “other mental illnesses.” He also said officers bound his ankles with a dog leash while they transported him to the hospital and jail.

While facing trial in April 2013 for that March 11 arrest, a court-appointed physician found Meche mentally incompetent to stand trial and he was transferred to Atascadero State Hospital.

While hospitalized, Meche filed an excessive force claim against the city, seeking $300,000 for pain and suffering. That claim was denied by the city in August 2013.

Meche appealed his commitment in June and a different doctor deemed him competent in September, according to court records.

He then pleaded guilty to felony charges of throwing a missile and obstructing an officer and given year in jail and probation. With credit served, he spent 14 days in jail.

Meche filed the lawsuit in federal court less than a month ago, on Feb. 27, seeking $1.5 million and criminal prosecution of the officers, who were only listed as “unknown” in the complaint.

A judge dismissed the suit on March 3, ruling that it did not provide enough information to establish that his rights were violated and that he failed to state a reasonable claim for relief. However, the judge allowed Meche 45 days to amend and re-file the lawsuit.

He died before the deadline.

On the night Meche died, according to a police incident report, officers received a call for service from residents who returned to their home on the 700 block of Mountain View Street to find Meche standing in their front yard.

Police Capt. Chris Staley said Monday that Meche was holding a stick in his hand and the residents called police from a neighbor’s house.

Staley said Meche was “acting bizarre” when officers arrived and they suspected him of being under the influence or experiencing a mental health episode. Meche initially became combative and officers had to use a “control hold” on him, Staley said, a hold that he called a “mild use of force.”

Staley said Meche was calm following the arrest.

The jail staff reported that Meche was cooperative during his booking just before midnight March 11 and did not complain of any medical condition before he was found in his cell, unresponsive, at 1 a.m. March 12.

Cipolla said the main pod where the holding cells are located is monitored by cameras. Cells do not contain cameras but have clear glass doors so that inmates can be seen by deputies in the pod. Cipolla said correctional deputies are required to conduct visual safety checks every 30 minutes or every 15 minutes for inmates deemed a safety risk.

According to the Sheriff’s Office, five inmates have died since 2009. In January, Rudy Silva, 35, died at Sierra Vista hospital after contracting what health officials confirmed was the H1N1 flu virus. There were no deaths reported in 2013, two deaths in 2012, none in 2010-11, and one death in 2009.

When an inmate dies in custody, the Sheriff’s Office is required to notify the District Attorney’s Office and the California Department of Justice within 10 days. The Sheriff’s Office conducts an investigation, and if any wrongdoing is suspected, the case is turned over to the DA’s Office or the FBI, Cipolla said.